Made in Kyoto

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 3, 2003

Toting our loaded Canons, we went hunting for geishas just before dusk. I was itching for a shoot. Almost a week had passed since I'd arrived in Kyoto, the imperial capital of ancient Japan, yet I still hadn't managed to photograph a single one of those celebrated painted ladies.

I had caught enough glimpses to believe this much: With their coquettish butterfly walks, waxed hairdos and telltale giggles behind the hand, these delicate beauties of Kyoto lived up to their billing as the most beguilingly authentic geishas in Japan.

For a hefty fee, my travel companion and I could have slipped behind a paper screen with a geisha and her translator for some witty chat and exorbitantly priced sake. But Guillermo and I were willing to settle for celluloid dates between a geisha and our zoom lenses.

So we went on the prowl in Gion. On the eastern bank of the Kamo River, Kyoto's most famous entertainment quarter is a picture postcard of an almost vanished Japan. Spared from the Allied bombs of World War II, Gion is a haven of old sake bars and traditional wooden teahouses topped with horned gray tile roofs. Small inland canals, straddled by Zen-style arching stone bridges, snake through its narrow streets. By one of those canals, amid a spray of weeping willows and cherry trees, we lay in wait for the first of the evening's geishas to flutter out from her cocoon.

Suddenly I shouted, "Look, over there!" I had spotted an impossible beauty, with a radiance undimmed by the fading orange sun.

Forget geishas. It was a gorgeous silk kimono on sale in a shop window -- and it was just before closing time.

Dragging my whining companion toward yet another kimono shop, I rushed in to examine the piece. We had done this drill before -- and it had cost us our geisha photo more than once. I had come to Kyoto two days ahead of my friend, but already he was being swept up in the undertow of my obsession with Kyoto crafts.

One minute it was lacquerware; the next, woodblock prints or Kyoto ceramics. More often than not, it was a silk affair -- kimonos were my true vice. Though I had just arrived to take a five-month Japanese language course in Kyoto, I had longed to visit the old capital since the late 1980s. That was when a college professor had first introduced me to Japanese arts and crafts, laying out his vast collection of antique kimonos purchased in Kyoto over many years. Now that Guillermo and I had agreed to spend a week together as tourists before I hit the books, I could hear my professor warning me: "Kyoto is a very dangerous city -- for your wallet."

While absorbed with the kimono, I noticed a sudden lack of whining around me and turned to see Guillermo swaggering back inside the shop with a grin on his face. "You missed the geisha," he said, smugly holstering his camera.

Maybe so, but I was now on the trail of bigger game. For some people -- you know who you are, the kind of tourist who goes to Istanbul to haggle over carpets rather than visit mosques, or blows into Venice only to leave your lover in the gondola while you ogle glass -- the line between a travel destination and a shopping opportunity can be terribly thin. For such people, Kyoto is an unmissable stop in the great global mall. Silk weavings, lacquerware, ceramics, woodblock prints, screens, handmade dolls, even basic, utilitarian objects such as combs and wash buckets are still made here using centuries-old methods. The best craft studios and stores maintain the classic airs of Kyoto's imperial past, with gracious shopkeepers often welcoming you with green tea in large rustic bowls and seasonal red bean cakes served with the ubiquitous bow.

There are, of course, plenty of other reasons to visit a city cherished by the Japanese as their cultural soul. The seat of the imperial court from 794 to 1868, Kyoto is home to more than 2,000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, harboring within their wooden gates priceless art treasures and among the best examples anywhere of Japanese Zen architecture and landscaping. During the millennium before the emperor moved his capital to Edo (now Tokyo), literature, calligraphy and the decorative arts flourished in Kyoto.

Even after the emperor headed east, the artisans of Kyoto -- today Japan's seventh-largest city -- continued to supply the material whims of the transplanted court. To this day, the city has turned the cultivation of beauty into its foremost cash crop. For the foreigner, the lure of Kyoto crafts is hardly new. Rudyard Kipling came in 1889, waxing poetic about Yasuyuki Namikawa's fine cloisonne vases and boxes, now housed in a wonderful new Kyoto museum.

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